LAWRENCE — Elijah Johnson takes a sip from a Gatorade bottle and stands in the hallway inside Allen Fieldhouse. He knows that the questions are coming, that people want to know what’s going on with Kansas. That most of all, they want to know what Johnson has learned during the season’s first seven games, his first month as the Jayhawks’ point guard.
“To be the person trying to fill the job…” Johnson says, “it’s (up) to me to answer the questions.”
It’s been a rough first month for Johnson, and that only has partly to do with the bruised knee he suffered in a victory against Saint Louis on Nov. 20, and the hard fall he took last Friday against Oregon State. The knee injury left Johnson lacking some “juice,” as KU coach Bill Self likes to say, and the fall left him with a bruised right wrist — two early-season scars.
But it’s been the other things — the position change, the early struggles on offense, the new leadership role — that have left the introspective Johnson looking for a little peace of mind.
“It’s not too much of a thinking process,” Johnson says, “I think I just have to react to everything.”
And for now, Johnson is reacting to this: Replacing Tyshawn Taylor’s production at the point-guard spot has turned into an early-season process. At first glance, the numbers appear respectable: Johnson is averaging 10.0 points in 29.7 minutes per game, and he’s recorded nine assists in two of KU’s last three games. But as Johnson has tried to involve his teammates and run the show, his own offense has suffered.
He’s averaged just eight points per game in KU’s last three games, and he’s shot only 11 free throws all season. Self likes to say that Johnson needs to learn how to “pass to finish plays,” not pass to start them. But if anything, Johnson’s free-throw numbers suggest he’s not creating enough chances to do either.
Last season, Taylor shot more than five free throws per game while jetting into the lane at will. When the offense broke down, or the shot clock neared zero, Taylor could create something out of nothing. Now Johnson must be that guy.
“I’m just getting to the point to where I’m realizing I’m the one who has to make the plays all the time,” Johnson says, “and that we’re better off with the ball in my hand.”
This is part of the process. And Johnson will get his next chance to grow on Saturday, when No. 9 Kansas, 6-1, plays host to Colorado, 7-1, at 1 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.
Self, of course, has been quick to mention that the burden on Johnson has been greater than usual. For years, Self’s teams have played with multiple ball handlers in the backcourt. Taylor had Johnson as his wingman. Before that, Sherron Collins had Taylor. And when Russell Robinson needed a release, he could count on Collins and Mario Chalmers.
Johnson is all alone, playing alongside two wings — Ben McLemore and Travis Releford — with limited point-guard skills. And the Jayhawks’ younger options have been slow to develop.
“It’s just putting so much pressure on him because it’s so magnified right now,” Self says. “He’s what we got.”
Self believes Johnson’s offense will come. He’s been nicked up a little, Self says, and he’s been running the team for only a month after playing mostly off the ball for three years.
“I don’t want to say he’s out of his comfort zone,” Self says. “That’s not true. But it’s just different than the way it’s looked in the past, because he’s the only handler we have.
“If we had somebody else we could put back there and play two guards at once, everybody would be talking about how good our point-guard play is.”
Earlier this week, Self also noted that Johnson has been a slow starter before. Last season, his first as a starter, he scored in double figures in just two of KU’s first eight games. But one thing is certain: Johnson averaged just 1.8 free throws per game last season. And that number has to improve.
“You look around the country,” Self says, “point guards, late-game situations, whatever… they’re shooting six or eight (free throws) a game, and he’s shooting one a game, basically.”
Johnson has heard this, and he says it’s a matter of being more aggressive. There’s not much else to add, he says.
It’s finals week at KU beginning on Monday, and Johnson will have to sit down and sort through a week’s worth of tests. It’s a matter of problem-solving, identifying the issues, and working through them. And Johnson says he’s doing that on the basketball floor as well.
The Jayhawks need a leader who can handle the pressure, who can create something out of nothing, who can perform without the luxury of a dependable backup. In short, KU needs a battle-tested point guard. And right now, Johnson is collecting the early-season scars.
“I think that sometimes that (can) wear on you,” Johnson says. “And you don’t realize it when you’re playing on the wing. But as a point guard, you have to make sure that all five people are in order.”